This article was written by John F. Green
Ivan Edward Bigler was born in Bradford, Ohio, on December 13, 1892, the only child of Charles O. and Mary Elizabeth Bigler. When a railroad roundhouse was built in Bradford in 1868, the village grew as rail activity increased. Many of the residents were employed in the industry, including Charlie Bigler.
As a youngster Pete was active in sports, and discovered early-on that his speed compensated for lack of size. (At maturity he stood 5’ 9” and weighed 150 pounds.) He excelled in basketball and baseball, and after high school there was mutual interest in attending Juniata College, founded by the Church of the Brethren, the Bigler family’s denomination. The Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, school benefited from Pete’s athletic talent; he starred on its basketball and baseball teams. The Juniata Eagles baseball program sent six players to the major leagues. In addition to Bigler and Sothoron, the others were all pitchers. Joe Shaute and Pat Malone pitched for over a decade in the majors; Hank Ritter pitched in 29 games from 1912 to 1916; and Jake Eisenhart got into one game in 1944.
After graduating from Juniata, Bigler began the early summer of 1912 catching for the Huntingdon Collegians, where his play drew the attention of Earle Mack, then with the Reading Pretzels of the Tri-State League. On his son’s recommendation, Philadelphia A’s manager Connie Mack sent Pete to work out with the Reading club for the remainder of the season. In 1913 Mr. Mack arranged a professional contract with the Utica Utes in the Class ‘B’ New York State League. Bigler played in 26 games as an outfielder, batted .190 (16-for-84), and was released in July. He returned to Juniata and managed the Eagles basketball squad through the 1913-14 collegiate season. In 1914 he was back with Utica for a brief tryout, drew another release, and spent the remainder of the year playing semi-pro ball.
Bigler’s fortunes changed in 1915 with the founding of the Class ‘D’ Blue Ridge League. He signed with the Gettysburg Patriots and enjoyed the best year of his pro career. Taking part in 69 games, he played a solid third base, batted .283 (75-for-265), stole 38 bases, and was named to the league’s all-star team. The Patriots, who finished in fifth place in the six-team circuit, played their home games on the Gettysburg College campus. Ira Plank, the younger brother of future Hall of Fame pitcher Eddie Plank, coached the collegiate nine. When that squad’s season ended, he was employed by the Patriots as player-manager.
The Blue Ridge League served as a proving ground for a number of players who reached the big leagues, notably Clyde Barnhart, Bill Sherdel, Monte Cross, Robert “Lefty” Grove, Eddie Rommel, Hack Wilson, and Jimmy Dykes. Even future Hall of Fame umpire Bill McGowan worked a season in the Blue Ridge.
In 1916 Bigler had an interesting year. He entered Springfield College in Massachusetts, eventually earning a master’s degree in physical education. An institution well-known for its PE program, it attracted James Naismith as a graduate student in 1891-92. During his time at Springfield, Naismith hung up a pair of peach baskets and invented a new game; today the college is still recognized as “the birthplace of basketball.” Even though he had played pro ball, Pete Bigler played on the Springfield College team. At the time eligibility wasn’t an issue, as many collegians played professionally under assumed names, or college administrators weren’t paying attention. After the collegiate season he went back to Gettysburg and played in 77 games, batting .243 (72-for-296). Changing its nickname from Patriots to Ponies, the club finished the season in the Blue Ridge basement. There was good news in October, however, when Bigler was drafted off the Gettysburg roster by the St. Louis Browns. It was the club’s last season in the league, though. As Sporting Life wrote in January 1917, despite the sale of several players including Bigler, the Ponies were no longer able to make a go of it.
Primarily a third baseman in the minor leagues, Bigler reported to the St. Louis training camp in the spring of 1917, and played well enough in exhibitions to stick with the club as the season opened. The Browns fielded veterans at all infield positions: Del Pratt at second base, Doc Lavan at shortstop, Jimmy Austin at the hot corner, and hard-hitting George Sisler (.353 in 1917) at first base. That March, Sporting Life wrote, “Stevenson, Western League flash, and Bigler, from the North Pennsylvania League, are expected to make things pretty interesting for Austin. Every year, however, things are made interesting for Austin on advance reports, and he is still there.”
In just the third game of the 1917 season, on April 14, the majors had their first hitless game. In. St. Louis, the visiting Chicago White Sox romped 11-0 behind ace hurler Eddie Cicotte. Three weeks later, on May 5 in St. Louis, the tables were turned as Browns lefthander Ernie Koob threw a no-hitter to beat Chicago and Cicotte, 1-0 (although a scorer’s decision changed a hit to an error after the game).
A doubleheader was played the next day, and St. Louis won both games, by the scores of 8-4 and 3-0. Bigler, who had ridden the bench since Opening Day, was finally called upon to take the field in the opener. He entered the contest in the seventh inning to run for Bill Rumler, who had walked as a pinch-hitter for reliever Eddie Plank. Pete was left on base, and his place in the lineup was taken by veteran hurler Bob Groom. The righthander held the White Sox hitless over the last two frames, although he issued three walks.
St. Louis manager Fielder Jones surprised the fans when he selected Groom to start the second game. The choice proved to be most eventful, however, as Groom tossed a no-hit shutout. His day’s work in the twin bill resulted in 11 hitless innings. Koob and Groom are still the only teammates to pitch no-hitters on consecutive days.
Bigler remained on the roster until early May, when he was released to Wichita of the Western League. Pete’s time there was short; after playing in just eight games from May 12 through May 20 and batting .111 (4-for-36), he was returned to St. Louis. However, he did not get into another game. He wasn’t the only player with the Browns in 1917 to have a one-inning, one-game big league career. Tom Richardson, Ed Murray, Otto Neu, and George Pennington joined him on the list.
In June Bigler was back in the Blue Ridge League, this time with Chambersburg. The franchise folded that month, and moved to Cumberland on June 30. In his swan song in the professional ranks, Bigler played 44 games at third base and batted .250 (62-for-248). He finished his four-season minor-league career with a .246 batting mark.
The United States had entered World War I, and Bigler joined the Marine Corps in the fall of 1917, serving until November 1919. He was honorably discharged with the rank of captain (and later served in the Marine Corps Reserve as commanding officer of the 308th Company, which won the Efficiency Trophy at the rifle range in 1930). With master’s degree in hand, Bigler accepted an offer from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, as assistant coach for basketball, baseball, and football. In addition, he remained active on the diamond, playing semi-pro baseball for a number of years in New England’s Blackstone Valley League.
In 1921 Bigler became assistant athletic director at WPI. He was betrothed to Helen in 1922, and three years later the marriage produced Edwin, the couple’s only child. In 1923, Bigler took over as head football coach, a job he held until 1940. The school’s won-lost record (42-62-10) under him wasn’t impressive, but in 1938, WPI’s 50th year of varsity football, he led the squad to an undefeated season, the first in school history. He also headed the basketball program from 1922 to 1940, and enjoyed 10 winning seasons. The NCAA’s Official Basketball Guide for 1930 said, “Coach Ivan Bigler usually produces satisfactory teams considering the conditions under which he labors. The biggest obstacle that confronts the coach is scholastic difficulties. Frequently players are ruled out because of severe scholastic requirements.” The 1938-39 quintet boasted a 13-3 record, second-best in New England.
When Bigler resigned after 1940, he was replaced by Paul Stagg, one of the coaching sons of the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg. Paul Stagg took over the football and basketball programs, and Bob Pritchard came on board shortly thereafter to be a gridiron assistant and head baseball coach.
After retiring from WPI, Bigler joined the Wyman-Gordon Company in Worcester, a manufacturer of industrial products, including iron and steel forgings, seamless steel pipes, and aircraft parts and equipment. He held positions in production and count control, and outside the plant, managed the Wyman-Gordon baseball team to Industrial League and city championships. Pete retired from the company in 1958, and moved to Coldwater, Michigan, where the Bigler family owned property at Cemetery Lake. His son Edwin lived down the road.
Pete stayed active in Coldwater; an avid fisherman and hunter, he also held membership with the Coldwater Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion Post No. 52. Bigler was 82 years old when he died in Coldwater on April 1, 1975, after a short illness. He was buried in the Church of the Brethren’s Harris Creek Cemetery in Bradford, Ohio.
Ivan E. “Pete” Bigler was honored posthumously in 1984 at Worcester Polytechnic Institute with induction into the WPI Athletic Hall of Fame. Quoted are excerpts from the ceremony: “Ivan ‘Pete’ Bigler was a major force in early WPI athletics as he devoted a significant portion of his life to the betterment of WPI and its intercollegiate athletic program. The records and statistics, however, don’t adequately cover the full story of Pete’s ability and character. His drive and commitment to athletics was always evident, but the critical ability to help student-athletes attain their maximum potential – both in the classroom and on the playing field – was always a driving force.”
March 3, 2011
In preparing this biography, the writer relied on clippings from the Research Center at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Also helpful were Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball; Retrosheet; Baseball-Reference.com; la84foundation.org (Sporting Life online); WPI.edu.com; WPI.prestosports.com; genealogybank.com. Special thanks to SABR founding member Ray Nemec and conversation with Mrs. Edwin H. Bigler.